The school had always fascinated me. It was so small that the principal was also a teacher, the cleaner and God knows what else. It had a small administrative building made of red bricks, many years ago, and since the town’s population was dwindling, there was plenty of space everywhere.
‘Good morning,’ I greeted the friendly lady behind the office counter. ‘Would Mr Frank Upton be in? I don’t have a firm appointment but he is expecting me today.’
She smiled. Obviously, they did not get too many reps. calling, being in the middle of grain-growing country with little else to warrant a visit from far away Melbourne.
‘He is teaching right now but just knock on the door and he will come out. But he may ask you to wait till recess.’
‘That is fine.’ I thanked her and walked the long corridor in search of a classroom with children and a teacher in it. Through the glass windows I could see into empty classrooms that would have been filled with children in days gone by. With young people flocking to the cities, country towns now struggled to preserve their small communities.
Sure enough, the last classroom to my right hand side was active. Children were sitting on their small chairs and listening with admiration and awe at what was being taught. At the front of the room, I saw Frank, the principal, teacher, caretaker, and whatever other functions he may have had in this little country school. He looked more like a farmer than a teacher, with his shirtsleeves rolled up, his collar unbuttoned. His sunburnt face, with lean features beneath a tussled shock of hair, was animated as he talked. I had also noticed that his pearly white teeth and blue eyes, cheerfully darting from one child to another, accentuated his personality. And, of course, he wore the grey gabardine trousers of the country folk and matching desert boots, made for walking on unsealed roads.
Suddenly, I realised that he was teaching German language. His blackboard was covered with picture cut-outs of various household articles and he kept pointing at them with a thick forefinger. I don’t know what came over me, but I knocked on the classroom door, opened it and stuck my head in.
I heard myself say in German: ‘Could I see you for a moment, please? I won’t keep you long.’
He flashed a smile at me and nodded. I am sure he mentally checked my grammar. However, my question had a noticeable effect on the children. Their mouths dropped open and they stared at me utterly surprised. Obviously, they had accepted a foreign language as being something to give them a hard time in school, but that somebody would actually speak it, when he didn’t have to, seemed to astonish them.?
‘That was a surprise, Peter,’ Frank extended a grateful hand. ‘Could I ask you to wait another ten minutes, when we have recess? I shall not teach for the rest of the morning and I am all yours then.’
‘Great, Frank. I shall wait outside the reception area. Alright with you?’
‘Perfect! See you soon.’ He went back into the classroom and recommenced torturing the poor children with a difficult language.
It turned out that Frank wanted my advice on installing a safety floor in the passageway. ‘Every time it rains, the rain water comes inside, making the corridor slippery and downright dangerous for the children’.
I had a look at the situation. ‘Frank, I’ll give you my honest opinion. The installation of safety flooring will cost a large sum of money and will still not solve your problem.’
‘Well, what do you suggest?’ Obviously, Frank was not keen to spend money unnecessarily. And if a floor covering rep. advises against buying flooring, there must be a valid reason.
‘Your main entrance to the school has no porch; it is flat and without protection. You step from outside directly inside. The rain hits your entrance and virtually comes inside every time the door is opened. And even closed, it runs from outside into your interior as there is no barrier.’
‘Y-yes. But what can be done about it?’ He was keen to make the right decision and was prepared to listen.
‘You have no roof protruding as a barrier for rain. If you had at least a canvas or aluminium awning which would act like an umbrella, the rain would fall at a distance from your entrance! ‘This, combined with outdoor industrial matting and another industrial mat inside, a minimum of five paces long, would take everything off the soles of shoes and your corridor would be dry.’
‘That is very good advice, Peter. It certainly would cost less than replacing a floor. I’ll be glad when I’ve stopped the kids from slipping.’
‘Now, hang on, Frank.’ I interrupted his beautiful thoughts. ‘There may be kids still falling because they push and shove each other. Even if you had a safety floor, there is no guarantee that nobody will slip - ever! But you will reduce the chance considerably if discipline is high.’
‘But that means your own advice will lose your company business,’ he said looking puzzled.
‘We do not work that way’ I explained to Frank. ‘If you really needed flooring I would say so. But I will not recommend something that’s not necessary’.
Frank assured me that he would get some quotations for a large awning and industrial matting and do his homework budget-wise. We shook hands and I left with the elating feeling of having helped a friend!